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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Dilemma of Dismantling Islamic State

When President Obama formally announced the full withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in October 2011, a collective sigh of relief reverberated across much of America. Then Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough stated, "What we were looking for was an Iraq that was secure, stable, and self reliant, and that’s what we got here, so there’s no question that was a success."

Three and a half year later, claims to success seem very much out of the question. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), once dismissed by Obama as a “Jayvee [Junior Varsity] team,” now controls a third of the two countries it lays claim to. The group – known for beheading civilians, ethnically cleansing the region of its Christian population, and pursuing a policy of systematic rape – has few friends in the international community. Its success is a widely acknowledged humanitarian disaster.

America learnt its lesson in Iraq in 2003. For many, it seems all too soon to be contemplating round two of one of the most fraught wars in recent memory. Yet, the consequences of inaction are potentially catastrophic. The recent announcement that 450 extra troops have been deployed (on top of the 3100 already there in a non-combat capacity) has exposed division within the US government and between the nation’s two major newspapers. The New York Times, siding with military heavyweights like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, argues that the US would do well to stay out of the quagmire. Without real political reform, it argues, annihilating ISIS will only create yet another power vacuum.

In contrast, The Washington Post argues that 450 troops are not enough. David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert, is in full agreement. He thinks the West needs to stop treating ISIS like a transnational terror network – picking off its leadership drone-by-drone – and start fighting it on conventional terms.

As Kilcullen notes, ISIS looks much more like a state than al Qaeda ever did. It controls large swaths of territory, it provides basic services, and it is even leveraging its oil assets. Allowing it to further establish itself comes with a host of risks: at best, disruption of the world’s energy supplies, mass civilian deaths, and increased refugee flows, and at worst, nuclear conflict.

What are the options for the US and its allies? They can sit back, wait for Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi to realise that an inclusive government is the only way forward, and hope that ISIS doesn’t do much damage in the meantime. Alternatively, they can commence a large-scale boots on ground campaign in the face of immense domestic antagonism. Or, they can take the Kosovo 1999 approach (Kilcullen’s preference), escalating air strikes and taking out key infrastructure.

However, any kind of action will require Obama to acknowledge the elephant in the situation room: Bashar al-Assad. Given ISIS has almost complete control of the border, Iraq and Syria are separate states in name only. The strategy must be integrated because, as long as Syria is in the throes of Civil War, ISIS has a safe haven. Indeed, Assad is rumoured to be tacitly cooperating with the group. By allowing it to gain a foothold in Syria, Assad paints the Syrian rebel opposition as ineffective, and his regime as the only hope for a moderate Syria.

As Damascus no doubt intended, this puts Washington in between a rock and a hard place. Supporting Assad seems abhorrent given his track record of atrocities, but forcibly removing him is a twofold problem.

First, the rebel opposition comprises increasingly radical groups such as al Qaeda spin-off Jabhat al-Nusra. For Obama, a Syria run by Sunni extremists is hardly preferable to the current regime.

Second, Assad is backed by Tehran, Washington’s tacit ally in the fight against ISIS. On 2 June, President Rouhani stated that Iran would support Assad “until the end.” US action against the Syrian regime, therefore, could escalate into an even larger regional conflict.

ISIS’ consolidation into a fully-fledged state is not in American interests, but preventing this outcome is fraught with complications. If the US decides to dismantle the organisation, it will require aggressive action on both diplomatic and military fronts.

Isabella Borshoff is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: US Department of Defence Current Photos (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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